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terre thaemlitz writings

Couture Cosmetique
Transgendered electroacoustique symptomatic of the need for a cultural makeover (Or... What's behind all that foundation?)
- Terre Thaemlitz

Originally posted on comatonse.com March, 1997. Accompanying text to the album of the same name (US: Caipirinha Productions, 1997; and Japan: Daisyworld Records, 1997). Special thanks to Dont Rhine for his editorial assistance. An NTSC DVD video of "Silent Passability" is available from Comatonse Recordings. A few copies of the original Caipirinha CD release are also still available from the Comatonse Online Shop. Click here to view original release artwork.


Track Listing

  1. Trans Am (Punched to the Floor) 1:45
  2. Silent Passability (Ride to the Countryside) 9:07
    NTSC DVD video available
  3. Residual Expectations 8:56
  4. Fragmentation/Standardization (Love Not Angrily in Protest) 10:53
  5. Facilitator 9:55
  6. F/S (Fragment) 0:59
  7. Abandoned Left 10:20
  8. D.C. D.O.A. 1:12
  9. Trans Am (Transgendered American) 10:50

    "[Music's] order simulates the social order, and its dissonances express marginalities."
    -Jacques Attali, Noise: A Political Economy of Music
    "While the development of Queer-positive imagery and graphics exploded with AIDS activism in the 1980's, sonically we have little more than, 'Hey-hey, ho-ho, Homophobia's got to go!'"
    -Dont Rhine, Ultra-red

It has been suggested by myself and others that certain subgenres of what has come to be known as Contemporary Ambient music propose a complication of cultural processes by subverting the spectacle of melody and questioning the social functions of active and passive listening techniques. Similarly, while the genre remains dominated by male producers and cannot claim to transcend the conventional heterosexism and gender biases of the electronic music industry, it incorporates discourses which involve the active disclosure, inversion and convolution of sonic and experiential relationships. The result is a vehicle of layered contents and contradictions that extend to the very manner in which it allows for the generation of multiple political discourses while most forums for reception are despairingly a-political and Humanist in tone (an often frustrating passive-aggressive circumstance).

To exemplify this concept of contingency upon the contradictory, the sounds developed for Couture Cosmetique emphasize residual noises produced by some of today's more popular digital synthesis techniques - including granular synthesis, pitch/time convolution and heterodyn filter analysis - bringing into focus those sounds which currently exist in a repressed state at the periphery of popular contemporary music production. In this manner, the limitations of such audio technologies are used to intimate new functionalities which remain excluded or omitted from popular development - a metaphor which may be applied to the construction and utilization of post-Industrial technologies in general.

1 "Essentialist" refers to the conceptualization of identities which purport to reflect a primal 'human essence.' A "non-essentialist" outlook, favored herein, refers to the conceptualization of identities as a strategy for self-mediation within a politicized social context. In non-essentialist terms, any identity construct's claim to embody a 'human essence,' be it Heterosexuality, Lesbianism, Gayness, Bisexuality, Transexuality, etc., is understood for its social function as a means to justify the social orders it serves by disavowing its potential for social changability. Non-essentialism attempts to complicate arguments of biological determinism by emphasizing that the application of a sense of propriety is an inevitable and inextricably social process, and that senses of propriety are contextual, hence mutable and more viable as a philosophical basis for incorporating social differences. Non-essentialism is to be differentiated from a concept of "Nurture over Nature" in that it rejects the dichotomy of Society vs. Nature, as such a dichotomy proposes the teleological emergence of a purely learned (purely comprehensible) self.

Technology per se, in its role as a medium for the development of First World cultures, becomes politicized with connotations of the contexts it fosters. These connotations are multifaceted, ranging from expanded agricultural production to environmental destruction; from the identification of a glandular enlargement in the brains of 'Homosexual men' embraced by some as an essentialist1 argument for social acceptance in its identification of Lesbian and Gay desire as an extra-social experience of Nature, to the use of genetic research as a means of reducing social aberration; from the internet as a means for women to foster global associations and increase visibility in technological fields typically dominated by men, to the overwhelming Heterosexism and Gay-male bias of net-porn; from the marketing of toy weapons and machinery for boys, to the marketing of baby dolls and domestics for girls. Thus technologies come to have multiple associations with gender and sexual orientation in popular media and 'counter culture' discourses, both of which emphasize (critically or non) the use of technology to perpetuate and expand Patriarchal First World marketplaces. Since it is through my interactions with such technologies and discourses that I mediate a sense of self, the metaphorical implications of electroacoustic audio production range from the hyper-personal to the socially dissonant.

I have found that this methodological framework for constructing audio has many similarities with non-essentialist factions of transgenderism [from gender confusion to Drag Kings and Queens] which also seek to complicate social processes. Transgenderism does this by actively questioning constructions of gender and sexuality, while its exploitation of essentialist constructs of femininity and masculinity reference social contextuality. It is this referentiality which I feel makes non-essentialist transgenderism a more viable platform for gender analysis than methodologies which propose a transcendental breach from those cultural influences they critique. However, as with a-politicism within the Contemporary Ambient genre, transgenderism's ability to develop such analyses is largely overwritten by larger factions and popular discourses which embrace essentialist concepts of sexual and gender identities.

From laser discs to laser surgery, both Contemporary Ambient and transgenderism utilize post-Industrial technologies as mediums of representation. Both embrace and abuse stereotypical applications of such technologies, and both must define such processes of recontextualization in relation to dominant social orders. The result of these abuses is not a neutralization of signifiers, but an outgrowth of imbalances which serve to complicate the very orders with which they are in dialogue. I disbelieve Contemporary Ambient and electronic music's ability to disassociate itself from masculine and patriarchal signifiers enough to represent a convincing fiction of androgyny (or femininity for that matter). However, as is the case with androgyny, the circumstance does not gain impact through processes of disassociation as much as through an ability to embody simultaneity and contradictions of desire.

It may be argued that all forms of recorded music are implicated in such a process of signification through the simultaneous dissolution of authorship via mass production, the essentialization of authorship and originality via the idolization of performers, as well as the manner in which we learn to author personal contents and possessiveness upon musics we 'love.' But what is of greater interest to me are means of production which seek to actively disclose these operations, as well as acknowledge the limitations of their abilities to identify such disclosures. The transformation of Walter to Wendy Carlos amidst the recontextualization of classical music from a purist acoustic (Natural) state to one of technological resynthesis (released by the apropos Trans-Electronic Music Productions, Inc.). Scanner's utilization of audio voyeurism to construct an acoustic 'Male gaze.' Laurie Anderson's use of narrative performance and spectacle as a metaphor for processes of self-identification amidst the 'Male gaze.' Oval's dislocation of authorship and process as a disavowal of Modernist gesture (implicit with testosterone driven angst), and their simultaneous recuperation into a concept of Modernist avant garde. Insook Choi's emphasis on constructions of audience and active observation techniques in the development of interactive audio media at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications; and the ensuing contradiction between a desire to move away from the elitism of 'Virtuoso/Master Listener' paradigms, and such a desire's contingency upon public access to largely unavailable technologies.

Discussions of such productions' abilities to disclose and destabilize processes of signification are hindered by dominant cultural discourses' identification of subjective contents as differentiated from and prioritized above the social contexts in which such contents are developed and mediated. Press and producers alike ponder The Death of AmbientTM, a death mandated by popular individualist ideologies' incongruity with compositional practices that diffuse the subject in relation to her or his environment. Others attempt to recuperate Humanist and Universalist philosophies into this process of diffusion through the construction of Ethnoambient and Fourth World musics, genres which typically use samples of Third World instruments to invoke a First World expression of the Tribal. However, such genres' reliance upon essentialist fictions of an extra-social condition of kinsmanship that is external to First World processes of cultural exchange (as defined by the necessity for Third World signifiers) results in a dichotomy which unintentionally excludes the First World Humanist subject from that extra-social space s/he claims to inhabit in essence. Such musics not only serve to conceal the social mechanisms which foster essentialism, they contribute to the construction of Diaspora through their imperialist suppression of localities of context and content.

2 For example, "Abandoned Left" focuses on feelings of paranoia and ineffectiveness among activists amidst popular anti-Leftist sentiments and self-critique. To exemplify this condition, but largely obscured from observation, the track is constructed from digital analyses of fade-outs from 1970's jazz/R&B titles (perpetual moments of abandonment from music with both Leftist and populist connotations).

And yet, even in my most fervent disagreement with essentialist ideologies, I cannot ignore their pervasiveness in my own actions. I am plagued by half-awarenesses of the processes of reification and fetishization which have led me to utilize audio and transgenderism as expressive mediums. I find that my actions must satiate simultaneous, and often oppositional, desires for catharsis and an engagement of audience. The former can lead to an over-aestheticization of the amorphous production strategies I hail, obscuring and reducing my intentions to trivia for private coveting or disclosure through addendums.1 The latter typically involves compromises of content arising from the desire to establish dialogue with discourses I oppose.

The amalgamation of these pursuits is my consumption by activities which seek to actively incorporate their inability to coalesce in a singularity of content or propriety - an incorporation which is not a disavowal of strategy nor an assertion of functionality, but an acknowledgment of the cosmetic modality of all actions. Cosmetic in their ability to impart social order and arrangement (implicit with aesthetism), as well as their intentional and unintentional concealment of social agendas; modal in their expression of moods and outlooks from the politics they reflect.

Couture Cosmetique is a manifestation of this 'critical cosmetology.'